Using Fiction to Teach Engineering to Kids

"Novel Engineering" program shows how teachers can introduce engineering concepts to children and foster creativity through reading
Young students sitting at a classroom table studying a book. A Tufts program by the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach shows how teachers can introduce engineering concepts to children and foster creativity through reading
Students taking part in a Novel Engineering workshop. “Kids are really capable of doing this,” said Elissa Milto. “And our hope is that they’ll see that engineering is a creative endeavor when they have this experience.” Photo: CEEO
May 20, 2020

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Claudia and Jamie Kincaid have a problem: they can’t see over the crowds gathered around a statue in the Hall of the Italian Renaissance. In E.L. Konigsburg’s classic children’s book From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Claudia and Jamie are secretly living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and they have to later return at night to take a closer look at the mysterious statue.

In a Massachusetts classroom, two students studying the book with engineering in mind proposed a different solution for Claudia and Jamie: a functional periscope to see over the crowds, built from cardboard and other materials that might find around a museum.

The two students were taking part in a program called Novel Engineering, which introduces K-8 students to engineering principles and literacy. In the program, which was developed by researchers at Tufts’ Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), children read a book, discuss challenges faced by the characters, and develop, build, and test their own solutions to those problems.

Launched with a National Science Foundation grant in 2010, Novel Engineering’s blend of literacy and engineering design has been honed over a decade of research and development. The CEEO, which conducts research on engineering education from kindergarten through college, has provided Novel Engineering training to more than 1,000 teachers in fourteen states and more than a dozen countries.

Open-ended activities and curricula based on specific books are available online, and now there’s a new resource for educators: a book published by NSTA Press this spring. In Novel Engineering: An Integrated Approach to Engineering and Literacy, CEEO director of outreach Elissa Milto, AG02, and four co-authors introduce teachers to the Novel Engineering approach and provide implementation guidelines and case studies.

An example of how to make a periscope out of cardboard. The Novel Engineering approach encourages students to apply the engineering design process and their own freewheeling creativity to problems that are meaningful to them. Photo: CEEOThe book’s other co-authors are CEEO director Merredith Portsmore, E98, AG99, AG10; former CEEO research associate Jessica Watkins, now an assistant professor of science education at Vanderbilt University; Mary McCormick, EG08, AG15; and Morgan Hynes, E01, AG09, an associate professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University.

Engineering Solutions

Elementary school and middle school teachers are asked to teach an ever-increasing variety of topics to young students. Many haven’t had opportunities to engage with engineering principles and practices.

“If you talk about bringing engineering to the classroom, it can be really stressful for educators,” says Milto. “They’re not sure how to introduce it and they don’t have experience doing it in a classroom. But if you integrate engineering with books and reading, where they have grounding and expertise, it becomes much easier.”

Engineering classroom activities for young children often come with a predetermined problem, solution, and materials, says Milto. The Novel Engineering approach encourages students to apply the engineering design process and their own freewheeling creativity to problems that are meaningful to them.

“Professional engineers design for real clients with needs, wants, and constraints,” said Portsmore. “By incorporating literacy and engineering design, characters in books become the clients. Students engage with books more closely while learning to problem-solve and think like an engineer.”

“What was notable to me,” said one Massachusetts teacher, “is that students who typically struggle in reading were often the ones who used evidence and inferences grounded in the text to evaluate their design decisions.”

She had a great example: it was her students who invented a periscope for the heroes of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. They decided to use cardboard after one student opened his copy of the book and pointed to a passage showing that one of the characters was frugal and would not want to spend money to buy materials.

That student has a reading disability, and the fact that he went back into the book and found the page where it said the character was cheap, and made that inference, was more than his teacher had ever seen him do when discussing literature.

“Kids are really capable of doing this,” said Milto. “And our hope is that they’ll see that engineering is a creative endeavor when they have this experience.”  

Lynne Powers can be reached at lynne.powers@tufts.edu.